New York Times

A Prisoner’s Unflagging Claim of Innocence Meets an Unexplained Intrusion
MAY 22, 2014

How does time pass for a person in prison who says he is innocent?

Everton Wagstaffe
Everton Wagstaffe, in 2008, is serving a 25-year maximum sentence. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
On Wednesday afternoon, a man named Everton Wagstaffe stood outside his cubicle in a dormitory at Greene Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Coxsackie, N.Y., 120 miles north of New York City.

For three hours, according to an account Mr. Wagstaffe gave to his family and lawyer, he watched as a corrections officer methodically searched the room, big enough for only a twin bed and a locker. Scant attention, if any, was given to his personal belongings, his toiletries and clothing.

Instead, the officer went through every page of Mr. Wagstaffe’s legal papers, a mighty stack reflecting years of litigation.

Mr. Wagstaffe, 45, is in the 22nd year of a 25-year maximum sentence for a kidnapping that led to the death of Jennifer Negron, 16, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. From the beginning, he has maintained his innocence and, during the last decade, has turned down multiple chances to walk free because they came with requirements that he express remorse for the crime.

An investigation of the convictions of Mr. Wagstaffe and his co-defendant, Reginald Connor, has been underway for about a year by a special unit in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, following reports in The New York Times of two new witnesses who support the men’s claims of innocence. State appellate judges heard arguments in December on their motion for a new trial.

So why were Mr. Wagstaffe’s files searched?

A spokesman for the state’s Corrections Department cited a general directive that said supervisors could authorize searches only if there was “reasonable suspicion” of contraband. Mr. Wagstaffe has had no disciplinary infractions in more than a decade, and only minor ones — like being late to a prisoner count — before then. The search yielded nothing, state authorities said.

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office claims no credit or blame for the search.

During a visit with Mr. Wagstaffe last year, he told me that he had fought to keep his bearings over the decades by reviewing every syllable committed to paper about the case and by soaking up works of philosophy and literature. His reading included “A Confession,” Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his struggles with midlife despair.

“What is my life about?” Mr. Wagstaffe asked. “All this stuff, all this evidence of innocence, has been brought forth, and I think, ‘Yes, this is it — straight to the point, no way around it.’ But here I am, all these years later.”

Mr. Connor, who also insists on his innocence, accepted parole, including a condition that he register as a sex offender, strictly limiting where he can work and live.

Ms. Negron was apparently forced into a car after midnight on Jan. 1, 1992. Around dawn, her body was discovered about a mile away, beaten and partially stripped. There was evidence of a struggle; her hand clutched strands of someone else’s hair. Years after the convictions, DNA tests showed that the hair and scrapings from under the victim’s fingernails did not come from either Mr. Wagstaffe or Mr. Connor.

Like many crimes during that violent era, the investigation relied on an informant and threadbare supporting evidence. Mr. Wagstaffe and Mr. Connor were identified by a single witness — the informant — a troubled woman who supported her addiction to crack with prostitution. Held in a hotel by the authorities to ensure her court appearance, she testified that she saw Mr. Wagstaffe drag Ms. Negron from the sidewalk outside her home and force her into the front of a car driven by Mr. Connor. The witness also testified that a third man was in the back seat, but no one else was ever charged.

Her account was buttressed by the discovery of a car that she and another witness testified they had seen Mr. Connor in earlier that night. An aunt of the dead girl testified that a headband in the back seat was very much like the one worn by her niece.

But the detectives kept no records of interviews with the owner of the car, and the defense lawyers did not speak with her. After the conviction, the owner said that she and her daughters had taken the car to a New Year’s church vigil and that it had not been moved the entire night.

An alibi witness, whose name Mr. Wagstaffe provided within minutes of being arrested, says she was never interviewed by detectives, prosecutors or defense lawyers until last year, after she had spoken with me for an About New York column.

“I have to generate patience and perseverance,” Mr. Wagstaffe said, adding a biblical citation: “ ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ ”


Twitter: @jimdwyernyt

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice